On the Nature and Purpose of Art

Der Mönch am Meer (The Monk by the Sea) (1808–10) by Caspar David Friedrich
Der Mönch am Meer (The Monk by the Sea) (1808–10) by Caspar David Friedrich

The Way We See the World

When we look at a painting, it evokes within us a combination of thought and emotion, a reaction that wells up almost involuntarily. It happens when we read a novel, recite a poem, view a sculpture, or hear a piece of music. Our response feels so natural—so correct—that it informs our judgement of the work, the artist and our companions. The source of these judgements is our view of the world, that is to say, our concept of the way things are (our reality) and our concept of the way they ought to be (our values). Through these concepts, we interpret our experiences. They are a vast collection of ideas about the human condition that comes sharply into view whenever we encounter a work of art.

These concepts exist in the mind: they are complex, often speculative, dis-integrated, ill-defined and confused. They are, moreover, by their very nature inaccessible to our senses and our conscious minds. We cannot examine them as we might any object in the physical world to gain insight into their nature and determine their implications. As such, they lie beyond the reach of the tools through which we best comprehend reality. Nonetheless, it is vital to our course in life that we think deeply and at length about the concepts that form our worldview, for they encapsulate our life philosophy and determine who we become. But to contemplate so great a subject in the realm of the imperceivable is no easy task.

The Creation of the Concrete

We need, therefore, some way to experience these concepts directly, as if they were real: a mechanism by which we can render the invisible visible, the silent audible and the abstract concrete; a process that embodies in a perceptible work what is inherently imperceptible. This process must provide a means by which we may perceive a thought as an entity, and must, therefore, re-create what is real to express what is not real. Such a process must make accessible to our minds and senses a view of the world and deliver to us a work that captures fully and succinctly, in both its substance and execution, the concepts within that view.

Art is the purest form of this process. Its media are melody, language, colour and solid form, and it produces works through which invisible concepts can be directly perceived by the mind as abstractions (e.g. a theme) and the senses as attributes (e.g. a melody). The creators of art—artists—express in music, literature, painting and sculpture a set of values (their view of the world) and present it to us for contemplation. They do this through the application of creative skill, which they assiduously develop to create works that are valued not only for their aesthetic and technical excellence but also their emotional and conceptual power.

The Work of the Artist

The artist does this work of expression through the stylisation of essential elements from reality, producing an eloquent representational or abstract work that is not merely a reproduction, recording, documentation, illustration or decoration of reality but a transformation of it, imbued with meaning. Only such a work is a work of art. In music, this is done through composition in sound; in literature, through composition in language; in painting, through composition in pigment; and in sculpture, through composition in solid form. In these primary media, the artist enshrines the human psyche in distinct, directly experienceable manifestations that have, by virtue of their elements, the capacity to make a concept real¹.

Our experience of these works brings us face to face with concepts, engineering an interaction that is otherwise impossible. Suddenly, we are able to hear, see or think about our worldview as never before: through the realised worldview of another, the artist. Art shows us the values of the artist (its primary function) and in doing so, helps us discern and evaluate our own (a secondary function). When we react to a work of art, it is not a matter of mere taste: we react because, by its very existence, the artwork pronounces a judgement on us—on our view of the world. The better the artwork, the more exquisite the creative expression of that judgement and the more intense our declarations of admiration or revulsion.

The Function of Art

This reaction has little or nothing to do with correctness or objectivity. What we are saying is some variation of: “Yes, this is how I see the world” or “No, this is not how I see the world.” We rely on artists to make comprehensible and perceivable to us their view of the world, thereby illuminating our own. Without art, we would experience these concepts exclusively in the mind—as something nebulous, fragmented and remote. It is the sole purpose of art to make them accessible and fathomable. Artists create mirrors for the mind, giving us a glimpse of who we are, allowing us a moment to reflect on what we see.


  1. The process of integrating a concept into an artwork—the artist’s choice of medium, genre, theme, subject, inspiration, style, technique, composition and so forth—is beyond the scope of this essay.

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